9 October 2023

Time travel through new exhibition coming from Australia's capital

| Claire Sams
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Convict love tokens

Convict love tokens, like these from David Freeman (1818) are part of a touring exhibition. Photo: Jason McCarthy/National Museum of Australia.

Before being sent to a faraway land, some of Australia’s early convicts made mementos for those they were leaving behind.

National Museum of Australia Senior Curator Laina Hall said these mementos, now known as convict tokens, connected modern Australians to the country’s convict past.

“Most people have an understanding of the fact that Australia’s initial British population was made up of convicts,” she said.

“But what these objects do, in a really amazing way, is connect us to an individual.

“These are historically significant, partly because they do give us such an incredible insight into the personal stories of what is a wider national story as well.”

For Bega Valley residents, a travelling exhibition is bringing these mementos to the region’s doorstep.

Ms Hall said her colleagues at the National Museum had curated a collection of 40 tokens from the wider collection of 315 – the largest in the world of these items.

“Being able to tour them [the convict tokens] to different regional venues seemed like a wonderful idea,” she said.

“It is an opportunity to get these stories out of Canberra and into different parts of Australia as well.”

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The public can view the selection at the Tura Marrang Library and Community Centre.

“There’s also a really fantastic interactive media screen where the rest of the collection [of tokens] is also accessible,” Ms Hall said.

“You can see both sides of the convict tokens as well, and really zoom in to read the messages that have been engraved on these incredible objects.”

Convict tokens look like relatively small coins at first glance.

“They are bigger than our 50-cent piece, but not particularly huge – one would fit comfortably in the palm of your hand,” she said.

“The copper was pretty soft and the existing images on the coin weren’t particularly raised, so that image was rubbed off to make a flat disk.

“People would have engraved or stippled, where a sharp tool is used to dot messages onto the coin.

“More often than not, both sides of the coin had a message of illustrations or text on them.”

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Ms Hall said the convict tokens served to higlight who the early convicts were.

“These were keepsakes,” Ms Hall said.

“When someone was sentenced to transportation, it was a way of leaving a message of love, a message of connection with friends or loved ones.”

Most of the tokens were acquired in 2008 from Timothy Millett, a British dealer and collector.

“Sharing our stories and enabling people all over Australia to connect to these really important stories is something we see as a really important role for the museum,” Ms Hall said.

“We often see objects as a little bit like time travel, in that these items have moved through time and we’re fortunate enough to have access to them now.

“That allows us to create a point of empathy and for people to start asking questions and learning.”

The exhibition will be hosted at Tura Marrang until 5 November.

Tura Marrang Library and Community Centre is located at 15 Tura Beach Drive in Tura Beach, and is open 10 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday and 10 am to 1 pm Saturday.

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